Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Passionate Friends

1949, UK, directed by David Lean

I haven't seen any of David Lean's 1940s films for a long time, partly because I took such exception to Brief Encounter the last time I saw it. Indeed, my reaction was so strongly negative that I wonder whether I shouldn't take another look. In any case, although this film, which ploughs some of the same emotional territory, enjoys nothing like the same reputation I found it to be very engaging. It's certainly not perfect -- the flashbacks within flashbacks were a little awkward without adding much -- but there's a degree of emotional subtlety and sincerity that's very affecting. While Claude Rains is very much the supporting player here as you might expect he makes hay with what he has, particularly in a wonderful scene where he is ostensibly reciting the rather dry details of a recent business meeting but in reality is giving expression to his inner turmoil. The mise en scène is often very interesting, too -- at times quite consciously theatrical in some of the sequences set in Rains' home, or in the pairing of two adjoining rooms which you could easily imagine on the stage, but it works very effectively.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Slow West

2015, UK/New Zealand, directed by John Maclean

An absorbing take on the Western, filmed (gorgeously) in New Zealand. John Maclean has clearly absorbed the genre thoroughly and does a good deal of deconstruction/reconstruction while hewing close to a simple quest template. Not all of his decisions work -- some of the absurd interludes are simply that, but other anecdotes help to build the lightly-sketched characters and the set-piece finale is very well handled, expertly constructed and edited. There are also a few moments of humour that almost all hit the mark squarely.

The Clairvoyant

1935, UK, directed by Maurice Elvey

A Gainsborough picture, made back in Britain just after Claude Rains's breakthrough success in The Invisible Man. I'm not at all familiar with Maurice Elvey, an apparently prolific director, though there a few atmospheric sequences and quite interesting use of location and/or stock footage (scenes set at Ascot or in a tunnel under the Humber). As you might expect, Rains is by far the most interesting onscreen performer, although there's not a whole lot he can do with what is at heart a relationship melodrama with unexplained supernatural add-ons (the film doesn't even make a half-hearted attempt to provide some rationale, although I suppose that could be construed as spooky in its own way).

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

La Vérité sur Bébé Donge

1952, France, directed by Henri Decoin

Another fine film from Henri Decoin, an emotionally brutal tale drawn from a Simenon novel, which begins with a man on his deathbed, in full knowledge that his wife has put him there by means of a poisoned cup of coffee. I haven't read the source novel and while other commentators suggest the book was gutted I don't think you have to look very far to find the author's underlying cynicism about human relations, particularly within relationships, in full flower (Maigret's tender relationship with his wife is the obvious exception in the oeuvre). Although Decoin is no Clouzot, he finds some of the same bone-dry spirit here at times and does an especially fine job in suggesting the depths underneath the facades of both Gabin and Darrieux; Gabin's usual charm is smartly upended through the repeated suggestion that he uses his magnetism entirely thoughtlessly for his own gratification. This film marked Darrieux's "turn" toward less admirable characters -- her 1930s films are pretty lightweight, and these days it's her 1950s films that people turn to most often, especially the Ophuls films.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


2014, France/Mauritania, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako

Sissako continues his remarkable career at the very forefront of African filmmaking: he's sensitive, honest, unsentimental and possessed of an intense humanity. It takes something quite special to show, however discreetly, the stoning of an alleged adulterous couple but also to leave you with the sense that these were people with complex lives rather than an excuse for a shock effect -- and the same is true of the central death scene in a river, a heartbreaking, Lang-ian moment in which a man makes one ill-advised if quite understandable decision to engage in a confrontation. His action sets in motion an implacable fate, or at least implacable in the particular time and place depicted. The subsequent wide shot of the man's escape from the river, a corpse lying to the right of the screen, is quite breathtaking. Will those who could most engage with and react to the film have a chance to see it, though?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Buud Yam

1997, Burkina Faso/France, directed by Gaston Kaboré

A sequel of sorts to Wênd Kûuni, the 1982 film that put Gaston Kaboré on the map. He returns to both the characters and the actors from that film and while there are deliberate resonances between the two pictures, including brief flashbacks that are actually footage from Wend Kuuni, this stands on its own as an exploration of pre-colonial Sahel life. It's not entirely historically accurate in terms of the depiction of a rather abundant and largely conflict-free swath of territory and yet it also succeeds in giving a strong sense of the existence of numerous loosely associated societies that often have trouble understanding one another even on the linguistic level (a phenomenon that continues today, and which contributes to the real challenges posed by borders that cut through pre-existing societies). While the storyline is straightforward, narrating the search by Wênd Kûuni for a legendary healer intercut with sequences featuring the young man's ailing sister, it's rich in its generosity of spirit, and very open about suspicions within village life but also the ways in which those suspicions can be healed. Visually some of the landscapes of southern Burkina Faso are lovely, and I also liked the way that Kaboré shot most of the film in medium/long shot so you can really see the interactions between the characters, while there are a few moments of wonderful humour, particularly a sequence in which a group of riverbank kids enjoy observing some clueless newcomers. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Raw Deal

1948, US, directed by Anthony Mann

Although not quite as compressed as 99 River Street this is another against-the-clock plotline, with a convict escaping and trying to make his way south for a payoff and a boat to the tropics. As you might expect from Anthony Mann and John Alton, it looks terrific -- moody and exceptionally atmospheric, with some wonderful compositions (a scene in the prison early on is especially good, as is the later sequence in a kind of crim-friendly guesthouse). Dennis O'Keefe is on roughly the John Payne level in the lead role -- less bland, perhaps, but certainly not a strong actor and the supporting players provide the real interest. Claire Trevor was deep in her glorious late-1940s run of bad girls and she does a terrific voice-over here, suggesting that this story is at least as much hers, certainly true in terms of the not-unexpected downbeat ending. John Ireland is also good as the hands-dirty tough, while Raymond Burr looms (quite literally since he's often shot from below) in the background, dispensing casual sadism.

Monday, May 11, 2015

99 River Street

1953, US, directed by Phil Karlson

A generally punchy film from the generally punchy Phil Karlson, a very solid noir that takes place over the course of a single rather fraught evening in which a former boxer/current cabbie sees his marriage disintegrate and his life disappear down the same plughole. There's one hell of a subplot that stretches credibility a great deal,while nonetheless providing the film with a terrific set piece (the camera angles and use of light/shadow are brilliant). John Payne is a pretty bland leading man but as ever in such films there's plenty of diverting support -- Brad Dexter has one of his earliest roles of substance and he's rather good as the heavy, while Jay Adler is very memorable as the fence despite the obvious stereotyping of the character. 


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States